This Sunday: Music for a Texanglophile

An·glo·phile /ˈaNGɡləˌfīl/ noun (1) a person who is fond of or greatly admires England or Britain, adjective (1) fond of admiring England or Britain.

Yes, it is no secret that I am an Anglophile. With Queen Elizabeth II recently becoming the longest-reigning British monarch in history, coupled with the season 6 premiere of “Downton Abbey” in the U.K. this past Sunday evening, keeping Anglophile pride in check has been difficult in recent days.

And this Sunday evening’s Choral Evensong literature, which will be sung by the Motet Choir, does not help the humility cause either. The evening canticles Magnificat and Nunc dimittis that will be sung are examples of the most sublime, beloved, well-known English cathedral music of all time. Famous 20th-century English composer Herbert Howells (1882-1983) was invited to serve as acting organist of St. John’s College, Cambridge, during World War II; the war was a prolific time for Howells and established a close association for him with Cambridge.

The dean of King’s College, Cambridge (St. John’s and King’s have enjoyed a happy choir rivalry for centuries) invited Howells to write a set of canticles for King’s; he wrote Jubilate, Te Deum, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis settings, along with a complete Communion set, and named them Collegium Regale (Latin for “King’s College.”) These compositions are among the grandest, most significant choral settings of choral literature.

Dr. Jane Gamble, Holy Communion’s new assistant minister of music, is a Howells scholar and will expertly accompany these pieces. Indeed, these canticles, as they say, “are not to be missed.”

Texan /ˈtɛksən/ noun (1) a native or inhabitant of Texas, adjective (1) of or relating to Texas or its inhabitants.

Yes, I lived in Houston, Texas, for six very happy years of my life in the early 1990s, and as you can imagine, I made a pretty good transplanted Texan. The larger-than-life Texas pride can also be difficult to keep in check, but I found being a Texan attractive and captivating. If southerners are “colorful characters,” Texans are their own “color” alone.

Composer Natalie Sleeth (1930-1992) was also a transplanted Texan by way of Illinois, Massachusetts and West Virginia. While some church musicians dismiss Natalie’s music as simplistic, I find beauty and craft in its simplicity, especially her anthems for children. Long story short: Natalie was the music secretary of Highland Park United Methodist Church, which sits on the front corner of the Southern Methodist University campus. She had written some children’s anthems, setting her own texts to music, which is a bit unusual for composers. She shared her work with her church music director, who called up the composition faculty at SMU; Natalie was quickly enrolled in composition classes, and the rest is history.

Our children’s choir, expertly directed by Mrs. Ellen Koziel, also new assistant minister of music, will sing Natalie’s simple, sublime anthem, “Feed my lambs,” during Communion this Sunday morning. These children have had only three rehearsals with Mrs. Koziel this choir season, and our congregation will be touched with the sweet sounds of this beautiful anthem and the sweet voices singing it.

From the complex grandeur of Howells to the simplicity of Natalie Sleeth, from ancient texts to contemporary prose, from Anglophile to Texan, from pride to humility, God will be praised and worshipped this Sunday. Soli Deo Gloria: to God alone the glory.

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From China to Ohio: Singing music by a little-known composer

Beebe-Psalm-1BSome church organists and choir directors throughout the ages have been famous composers as well. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) comes to my mind first. As kantor (choirmaster) of the Thomasschule (St. Thomas Choir School) in Leipzig, Germany, Bach actually served four congregations at once: Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church), Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church), Neue Kirche (The New Church) and Peterskirche (St. Peter Church). He trained the choirboys and also wrote a 20-minute cantata each week to be sung in the Sunday morning services.

On the Anglican side of the English Channel, Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was a boy chorister of the Chapel Royal and later served as organist and master of the choristers of both Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal. He composed in every genre from English opera (Dido and Aeneas) to theater music (The Fairy Queen) to verse anthems often sung by our own parish choirs.

Throughout the years, even I have attempted to compose a few sacred tunes. My patience always seemed to get the best of me – I’ve always wanted to play or sing music rather than take the time to actually write it – but our modern notation software programs Sibelius and Finale have made the composition process easier and quicker. Indeed, the opus werke of David Perry Ouzts (b. 1962) consists mostly of a few children’s songs from my late teens and, in these later years, a few hymn descants and Psalm tones when the needs arose.

For all the famous church musician composers in history, there are legions of church music composers who perhaps had only a few anthems published along the way. To my best knowledge, the composer of our anthem at the Offertory this Sunday (Sept. 20) is such a composer. Edward J. Beebe’s setting of “Psalm 1” has been in our parish music library for decades, but we don’t know much about Beebe as a composer or a church musician.

Born in 1925 in Yunnan, Kuilungkiang, Edward “Ted” Beebe’s parents Lyle and Mary were Presbyterian missionaries in China. When Ted was two years old, his ordained father returned to Canton, Ohio, and took a church post. Ted graduated from high school in 1943 and was the organist of a United Methodist Church in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, during his high school years. (I was the organist of a United Methodist Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, during my high school years myself.)

Beebe was called up for military service in 1944 and was a prisoner in a German Nazi camp in 1944 and 1945, the end of World War II. He returned to the states, went to college, and eventually graduated from the University of Michigan in 1956 with a master of music degree, all the while serving as an organist and choir director in various congregations. He died in his hometown of Canton in 2004 at age 79.

In his life, he published about 10 anthems through two local publishing houses in Ohio. We are singing his setting of Psalm 1 this Sunday because it is the actual Psalm appointed in our Revised Common Lectionary readings for this Sunday. Beebe’s setting is of the King James translation of the Psalm, while in the readings of our own liturgy of the word we will chant the Book of Common Prayer (1979) translation. Both the KJV and the BCP versions are printed in the 10:30 service leaflet this Sunday and are interesting to read and compare.

Was Beebe a prolific composer? Probably not. But his anthem setting that we will sing is a worthy one, I think. His text painting and dramatic choral textures run the gamut from grand to chant-like, loud to soft, complex to simple, and the organ accompaniment is interesting with full organ ensemble sounds echoed by quiet organ solo melodies.

I wish I knew more about Edward Beebe, his life, his career, and his compositions, but I am happy to have the one example of his opus werke to use this Sunday.

Beebe-Psalm-1A

Singing in Latin: Why We Do It

psalm149

If English is our native language, why do church choirs often sing anthems in Latin? We know that all pre-Reformation worship, liturgy and music was conducted in Latin; indeed, the Protestant Reformation brought liturgy to the people in their native tongues. And though it took the Roman Catholic Church a few more years (about 413 years, actually), the Second Vatican Council brought the Mass to the people in their native tongues as well.

The publishing of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s 1549 Book of Common Prayer in English was huge… huge! For the first time, the top had been taken off of the liturgical cookie jar. Rather than the faithful simply sitting in the nave and listening to the celebrant rattle off the Eucharistic Prayer in Latin, which was not understood by the illiterate, the words of the blessing (consecration) of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ could then be completely understood by all. I have often wondered what that must have felt like… huge!

Leading up to this era, all the beautiful choral music – 15th-  and 16th-century masses, motets, chants, songs, anthems – had obviously been written with Latin texts. As composers do, the syntax of the texts, the rise and fall of the musical lines, and the emphases of compositional techniques with respect to these texts were carefully crafted using the Latin texts. English vocal music for the most part was secular.

We also know that translating from one language to another is not a perfect science. A prime example of this is our local parish custom of reading the Acts lesson on the Day of Pentecost, the portion that describes the apostles “speaking in their own tongues as the Spirit gave them the ability.” When we read this Acts lesson in the various languages simultaneously, no two languages finish at the exact same time. Some translations are longer, and some are shorter.

The same goes for choral music composed in an original language. If the piece “sings” better in its original language, detriment can be done to the beauty of the music by an attempt to “wedge” a translation into the originally crafted notes. Moreover, linguists teach us that all the Romance languages share Latin as their root, even English – another point to not forget.

Yes, some translations are, indeed, successful and work well. One of my favorite pieces comes to mind: from the Brahms Requiem, the fourth movement “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” also sings beautifully with the English translation “How lovely is thy dwelling place.” Brahms’ rise and fall of the initial choral phrase crests on the word “Wohnungen” and “dwelling place” equally successfully. Such is not always the case; I would maintain that it is somewhat rare.

I love the Gospel stories of Jesus’ healing miracles. In this Sunday’s (Sept. 6) gospel, Jesus heals the woman’s little daughter by simply telling her mother to go home, where she found her daughter delivered from the demon and lying on the bed. He next heals a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment. Though Jesus told the disciples to not tell anyone, “the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” (Mark 24:36)

This “zealous proclamation” led me to a great Psalm of rejoicing and thanksgiving for this Sunday’s anthem, the Giuseppe Pitoni (1657-1743) setting of Psalm 149, “Cantate Domino.” This brief but delightful anthem is a favorite of choirs worldwide. (And it “sings” better in Latin!)

Cantate Domino canticum novum;
laus ejus in ecclesia sanctorum.
Laetetur Israël in eo qui fecit eum,
et filii Sion exsultent in rege suo.

Sing ye to the Lord a new canticle:
let his praise be in the church of the saints.
Let Israel rejoice in him that made him:
and let the children of Sion be joyful in their king.

-Psalm 149:1-2

Click here to read an article on The Book of Common Prayer (1549), with texts and facsimiles of the original old English.

What’s in a (Tune) Name…

IMG_9201One of the great Holy Spirit hymns in The Hymnal 1982 is “Come down, O Love divine,” with its tune Down Ampney composed by the English master Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). We sing this hymn most Pentecost Sundays, as the text extols our desire for the Holy Spirit to burn within us. This text is captivating, with its vivid images of verse: freely burning, kindling holy flame, heat consuming, glorious light, path illumining.

The text originated as the poem Discendi amor santo by Italian mystic poet Bianco of Siena (ca. 1350-1399), then appeared in a collection of Italian poetry in 1851, and was subsequently translated and included in the Anglican hymnal The People’s Hymnal (London, 1867) by Richard F. Littledale.

Vaughan Williams composed Down Ampney for The English Hymnal (1906), one of the most important hymnals of the 20th century and for which he served as editor along with the great hymnist Percy Dearmer. The hymn tune was originally attributed to “anonymous” (Vaughan Williams’ own personal joke), but the tune was correctly attributed to Vaughan Williams in 20th-century hymnals that followed. Vaughan Williams enjoyed these playful moments: for the great hymn “For all the saints,” he titled his tune Sine Nomine, Latin for “without a name.”

RVWandCatAs many composers choose hymn tune names that are personal to them or represent an important place, Vaughan Williams named Down Ampney after his birthplace, Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, England. Likewise, composer William Bradley Roberts named our new parish hymn, “Come, new heav’n, new earth descending” after the street location of this parish, Walnut Grove.

While the final stanza is the culmination of the text, I believe the literary pinnacle is found in the phrases of stanza 2:

O let it freely burn, til earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And let Thy glorious light shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

Photo of Ralph Vaughan Williams from The Telegraph